Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models

lauramaryattic

Mary with Laura holding Susan. Illustration by Garth Williams, Little House in the Big Woods, 1932

Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience.  Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?”  Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III.  I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.

One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age.  But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.

How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented?  Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one.  That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together.  Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading

Crossing over, part II: Will I ever publish this book?

Do I feel lucky?

Do I feel lucky?

Howdy, friends!  Today’s post is part II about how I wrote and got a contract for the book I’ll publish next year, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016).  For part I of this series, “Crossing Over:  What is my book about?” click here.  When last I left you, I had just arrived at the Huntington and presented a draft of my introduction to a terrific seminar that meets there, Past Tense, which focuses on the craft of writing history and the choices historians make.  The people there seemed to like the intro and expressed enthusiasm for the project overall.

After the Past Tense seminar last autumn, I contacted the agent I had been in touch with more than six years earlier, and sent him the first four chapters and my introduction.  He replied with admirable alacrity–within a week, said that the four chapters were “very interesting” and “very impressive,” but he utterly disliked my introduction, which was not just an introduction to Esther Wheelwright, but also a short essay on the politics of early American historical biography and our preference as both writers and readers to read the same damn so-called “Founding Father” biographies over and over again.  (Longtime readers here will recognize this complaint!)

The agent informed me that my introduction was out-of-date and the feminist analysis was tedious and “hectoring,” and said that he wasn’t interested in representing me.  I talked to some of my friends about this, and they bolstered my sense that I should stick to my guns.  I didn’t write this book just to tell a fascinating story about a little girl and a woman (although I do that!)–I wrote it so that I could make a larger point about U.S. American history, and whose stories get told and whose stories get left out. Continue reading

Crossing over, part I: What is my book about?

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

In a post last weekend, I revealed that my forthcoming book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) would be published as a crossover academic-trade title.  Some of you expressed interest in how I got a contract like this, as many of the scholar-readers here are interested in writing beyond a traditional academic audience of other professors and their students.  So, I’ll tell you my story and do my best to draw a few lessons out of it.

(Over the last several years, I would tell junior scholars who asked about how I got my first book published to ask the same question of a lot of other people, because it seems like no two journeys to a publisher and to publication are the same.  Maybe this is a truth universally acknowledged?  Those of you with more experience, PLEASE weigh in with your ideas, advice, and experiences!) Continue reading

Writers, readers, publishers, and money

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.”  She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read.  They’re eating our lunches!

History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.

In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.

To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling.  His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points:  Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively.  I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working.  (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)

This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two.  Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading

End of the line

End of the cog railway on Pike's Peak in Colorado

End of the cog railway on Pike’s Peak in Colorado

I’m in the last six weeks of completing my second book (and third monograph!) and the end of my last research trip to Québec, so it’s the end of the line for me.  As much as I’ve been itching to get this book done, it’s a little sad now to think of not returning to Québec.  It’s too bad, because I’ve got the condo situation sussed out, my favorite épiceries and boulangeries figured out, the vagaries of seventeenth and eighteenth-century French navigated, and now this information will become irrelevant to anyone (including me) in the next few years.  Isn’t it always the case that just as we get good at something, it’s time to wrap it up and move along?

I guess the only way to avoid this feeling is never to finish a project, which is just a bridge too far for me.  I take pride on being the kind of historian who can get stuff done, get it out, and move along.  I’m a perfectionist, but I also recognize that there is such a thing as the best book I can write right now.  I just can’t nibble a project to death.

All this week, I’ve had two alternating thoughts as I’ve reviewed some of the archival material I’ve taken notes on already, as well as a few new items:  first, omigod, how did I miss this the first time around??? and next, OK, this helps you and merely adds a few choice details to the story you’re already telling.  Still, don’t most of us wonder how many wonderful, awful stories we’ve missed? Continue reading

Nun can compare to super-weird George Washington Barbie (or can they?)

Ursulinedoll

Mother St. Barabra of the Swizzle Stick

Some of us had a little doll-related fun on Twitter today. Liz Covart  (of Benjamin Franklin’s World) went in search of Betsy Ross Barbie, and was amazed to find it; Marla Miller, who first tipped us off to the existence of this Barbie, suggested that we all immediately Google “George Washington Barbie,” which of course we did.

I’ve got a barbie none can beat, friends–my Ursuline Barbie!  But enough about my dolls; I’m here to tell you that I’ve been thinking about all of my book-related dolls and historical dolls in general while I’ve been walking around Québec this week, as Québec (like France) seems to have a weird fascination with both larger- and smaller-than-life representations of the human form.  That is to say, I’m a huge fan of dolls, and even I’m a little creeped out by it.

Continue reading

Was the American Revolution a mistake? Reflections from the true North strong and free.

quebec

Greetings from Cap Diamant!

While I was buying a ticket Saturday afternoon to tour the archaeological dig of Chateau St. Louis, the remains of the original fort and governors’ houses in Québec City, I was wished a “bonne fête” (happy holiday).  The Parks Canada employee had to remind me that “c’est le quatre Juillet!” (“it’s the Fourth of July!”)  Duh.  I had spent all morning and most the afternoon at the Cathedral on a top-secret mission, and I think my brain was working so hard trying to speak and read French again that the American holiday fell completely out of my consciousness.

Having spent Independence Day weekend with our Francophone neighbors to the North, I may be particularly susceptible to this argument by Dylan Matthews, “3 Reasons the American Revolution was a Mistake.”  After all, the people of Québec famously refused Benedict Arnold’s kind offer to join with their southern neighbors to throw off the yoke of British tyranny.  The legacy of more than a century of warfare with rabidly anti-Catholic New England colonists made Anglo-Americans unreliable allies in the eyes of most Canadians, to say the least.

Here’s Matthews’s argument, in brief–first and foremost, slavery ended sooner in the British empire, and he uses Canada as a compelling counter-example for U.S. Americans to consider:

Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there too in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.

This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.

Second, the American Revolution was really bad for First Nations peoples–not that Canada’s record is awesome, just less awful than U.S. imperial expansion: Continue reading